These days it seems ever more trendy to find novel ways of bashing masculinity. The narrative has been so skewed by ideology that any out-in-the-wild masculine behavior is seen as wrong or misguided. Guys are told to be more caring, less aggressive and more vulnerable. They are told they are toxic and that’s the reason why the world is bad as it is.
Frankly, such patronizing talk is quite annoying. Especially so, when no one on the other side seems to consider that there are good reasons why men behave the way they do.
Incidentally, I am far from ecstatic about the term “masculinity” and its use as a prescription of certain male behaviors. Yet, there are certain patterns one cannot help but recognize among most men, the few exceptions to them notwithstanding.
I wanted to write this post because I have spent years trying to understand what it means to be a man and why certain things appeal to me and others don’t. Throughout this journey, I have seen and heard many opinions about masculinity. Sadly, very few of them rang true. At least to a young guy like me, most things said out there about what being a man means seems at best out of touch and at worst a malicious attack on what is construed as an ideologically problematic group of people.
I want to stress this last word: people. It’s a sign of the times that this needs saying, but: men are people too. In other words, we do make mistakes and our views are not always right. But the same applies for women and everyone in general. To single out the bad without acknowledging the good in a person is not only to be biased and unfair, but to demand perfection in a world which has none.
Before I begin, I want to stress out that I understand the topic naturally involves generalizing statements which I’d prefer not to make. But the term masculinity is itself a sort of generalization which we as men supposedly all possess. And since that is the language of the accusations leveled against men, that will naturally be mine too (even if I’d much rather deal with separate individuals as opposed to abstract groups)
With that said, let’s talk about men. And what better place to start than the much discussed male sexuality.
One of the greatest counterintuitive messages for young men is the attempt to decouple masculinity from sex at all. I don’t know how many times I have heard that masculinity has virtually nothing to do with the number of women you’ve slept with and sex as a whole. Yet, all of it is hard to believe and intuitively grasp when the reality lived by guys simply rejects this notion. What’s more, it is often women who would measure the manliness of guys by their sexual appeal or prowess. Of course, that’s far from the only measure. But it certainly is one.
So, which model is more useful? (I am hesitant to use the word “right” about the stories we tell ourselves, so I’ll stick with utility for now)
Is sleeping with girls absolutely unrelated to what a man is?
Personally, I think no. But this answer needs footnote after footnote to unpack.
Firstly, seduction is not easy. A man needs to develop many great qualities to succeed in life and it’s a fact of life that many of them are precisely what attracts women. And frankly, that’s not too surprising through an evolutionary lens. Sex and masculinity are related not by fiat, but by the simple fact that e.g. confidence is both attractive and useful. In other words, to a first approximation, female opinion is a good indicator of whether you’re doing well as a guy.
Moreover, if procreation and love constitute any part of the male experience, then certainly being able to offer women what they want is a sign of mastery and prowess. It’s a signal you understand the game, at least as far as relationships go.
Of course, the above is true for most guys, but not all. Having been born with the right genes or in the right wealthy family might bestow upon you the blessings of sexual pleasure, but it takes away a certain opportunity to grow. As far as these things go, raw female judgement (the emotional, pre-verbal kind) can be among the best indicators for a guy on whether he’s got his shit together.
Closely related to sexuality is the topic of male aggression. The narrative we’re mostly told these days is that this is men’s original sin. Men commit most violent crimes and it’s men who are attracted to the vile in human nature (e.g. fighting, conflict, war).
Of course, it is true that men are more violent. But as I said above, this aggression is not something that could be excised from men while leaving all the rest in place. What I mean is that the male proclivity for violence stands not only behind the crimes of male criminals, but also behind the risks male police officers take to prevent them.
In any case, every young men knows the feeling of desperately wanting success, respect, admiration and love. We have the expectations placed on us by women and society to conform to certain ideals and many of us seem naturally predisposed to taking high risks. The result is two-faced. On one side there are all the risks men take and which pay off for society (the companies they start or the life-risking jobs many men do). On the other, there are all the risks men take and which do not pay off. And once a man finds himself at the bottom, unloved, poor and despised, the risks he is willing to take frequently conflict with the law.
The point is, male violence, as bad as it is, is intricately linked to other great qualities. Aggression is not just a constituent part of violent crimes. It is often a key part of courage too.
In the past, these sides of male nature were understood and seen holistically. Nowadays, we are focused so much on the bad that we forget about the good. If formerly, the idea of education was to civilize men and ensure that the risks they take were for the common good, then today the idea of education is to simply shame men into risk-aversion and passivity. This is why rough and tumble play is increasingly discouraged — it’s a risk little boys are willing to take which we see as unacceptable. This is also why male sexual advances, even those of merely the verbal kind, are frowned upon — they are judged as too risky or off-limits.
All of this leads into one of the most common refrains today: men should learn vulnerability. To many, it seems that the problem with men has always been that they are too stoic and unemotional. If only men were more vulnerable and open, how much better would the world be?
The culmination of all this is always the same: masculinity is vulnerability.
This one is admittedly quite bizarre to hear from guys. Maybe they know something I don’t, but the language of vulnerability has never appealed to me in the slightest. If I want to take a high-risk gamble in hope of achieving my goals, it’s simply the case that more often than not vulnerability and needless sentimentality do not help.
None of this is to say that men cannot express their feelings. But the undertone of most discussions on masculine emotionality is always the same: the problem with men is they don’t cry enough and they don’t open up. But there is a reason why that’s so. Emotions are simply not that useful for many goals. (one of which is attracting women which don’t generally swoon over crying guys)
Of course, advocates of vulnerability would be fast to list many of its benefits — better relationships, less stress, etc. But none of this too surprising. Of course relationships benefit from better emotional communication. If a great relationship is the goal, then, sure, be open. But not everything in life is like a relationship. Sometimes, oftentimes, it’s better to stay closed.
But there is another side to the vulnerability story. In it, traditional masculine ideas are not scolded, but rather modified. For example, we are no longer told that aggressive sports are unmanly, but that to be a better performer, i.e. more manly, means embracing vulnerability. The conclusion is much the same: vulnerability is great so rejoice in it.
Yet, the obvious other interpretation is never mentioned. Maybe vulnerability works in many traditionally male pursuits exactly because there is no other alternative to it. After all, courage is action in the midst of inescapable vulnerability. And as far as my intuitions go, it’s the bravery of action and the willful undertaking of a high risk that matter here, not the state of vulnerability which is only accepted because it couldn’t not be. (there is a reason why modern culture rejects the traditional male virtues — they conflict with the much preferred emotional guy of the 21st century)
Besides, promoting superfluous vulnerability contradicts one of men’s highest values: strength.
There has been a lot of fuss recently about the use of males as symbols of strength. The story goes like this: women can be strong too, so the male symbolism is only a sign of sexism and nothing else.
But is it though? Women can undoubtedly be strong, but testosterone flows in the male blood more than the female. Which is to say, men have a greater natural strength and they feel much more comfortable exercising it. Rough and tumble play, fighting, extreme sports are all expressions of the natural male tendency to develop physical strength. It should be no surprise that this physical struggle then has come to shape the male understanding of the world as well as its related symbolism. To men, metaphors related to physical strength and struggle are highly meaningful; metaphors of vulnerability are not.
Lastly, we come to perhaps the biggest lie of them all: that all of the above is nothing more but internalized gender norms; that we would all be better off without it.
Myself, I have always failed to see precisely how denying biological and behavior reality would really benefit me in the slightest. I know that I see the world differently from most girls and that some behaviors which are fit for me are not fit for them and vice-versa. But that’s not what is most annoying and even dangerous about this lie.
There is this trendy way of addressing male concerns by dismissing any discussion about them as the problem itself. If men feel emasculated, attacked or lonely, then the problem is not with a culture that sees masculinity as a threat to be avoided. No, the problem, we are repeatedly told, is that men still expect to be men; the problem is the not the state, but the feeling of emasculation.
If I suggested above that such mindset presents a danger, it is only because I have personally felt and seen the damage. Feeling personally dismissed, misunderstood and alienated has always been my relationship with the wider western discussion of masculinity. But I could probably live with that if I didn’t see a major move to turn male mental health upside down.
What I am talking about is articles like this one, where male suicide is attributed — surprise, surprise — to men lacking the ability to show their feeling. The assumption is always that you can feel your way out of existential crisis and that male problems are not male at all. I know for a fact that when life hits me hard and when I most need help, it’s not feelings that I am lacking (for I have too many) and it’s not a place to express them that I most need (for I can’t help out but cry at these most trying of times). No, the help I need then is one that is explicitly male and understands my reality, not one that tells me that what I feel most missing from my life is not even worth attaining.
So, yes, it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise. It’s dangerous to dismiss the male mental health crisis simply as a case of guys being too manly and foolishly avoiding any sentimentality at all. Such attitude, I fear, might well get guys killed. Ideologies have a human cost…
In conclusion, I would like to reflect that the above is simply my view of the world as a young guy. It is quite possible that I got some things wrong which older guys did not. But it’s worth remembering that I might be right and older married guys simply live in a different world. A world, where masculinity has less to do with sex and strength, but more with caring for your children and wife. In other words, a world for which the prism of vulnerability and sentimentality makes more sense only because a stable career has already been established, love guaranteed and testosterone levels are beginning to fall (and with them, the lure of physical strength and struggle). So, maybe masculinity changes over time? Maybe. In any case, modern culture hardly speaks to young guys and it’s high time this changed.
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